“I pull off your jeans and you spill Jack and coke in my collar”
– “Baby We’ll Be Fine,” Alligator (2005)
“You could have been a legend/ But you became a father”
– “Slipping Husband,” Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
“I run up to the rainbow, girl/ Just to pass it by”
– “29 Years,” The National (2001)
Such instances of promise and intent arrive indiscriminately crumpled by fate and character throughout The National’s back catalog. Cast out in a number of alternate scenarios and across frequently hapless settings, the outcome of each event remains connected by the humbled tone of our narrator, Matt Berninger, who has been writing the band’s lyrical content for the past 14 years. Over the course of previous LPs, Berninger’s demeanor has remained predominantly dry and somber, despite the band’s persistent increase in acclaim with each new release. Yet as a songwriter renowned for writing about his own experiences, he retains a feeling of tarnished optimism, regardless of the situation at hand, whether it be accomplishing the impossible, achieving admiration from misguided followers, or getting laid in a drunken stupor. Even though they bear awkward bundles of potential, these situations are brought to the fore with a visceral twist that makes his commentaries perplexing, bitter and often quite beautiful when pitted against delicate strings and sweeping piano sequences, which come embedded within the steadfast indie rock rhythms that have made this Cincinnati five-piece so inspiring.
“Oh, everyday I start so great / Then the sunlight dims.”
– “Demons,” Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Crushing expressive trends continue to incite rough bouts of schadenfreude and affirmation through Berninger’s baritone, but on Trouble Will Find Me, they are not the (lonely) heart and soul of the party. After touring for 22 months on the waves of High Violet, The National returned almost immediately to the studio and began producing fresh material, which they were inspired to write after playing experimental setlists for festival audiences worldwide — perhaps this spurred their enthusiasm for Ragnar Kjartansson’s “A Lot Of Sorrow” project, where the group played “Sorrow” more than 100 times during a six-hour set at the MoMa PS1 in Long Island City. The confidence they assumed in returning to “Available” at Latitude in 2011 or performing “Son” to a bedazzled crowd at Zambujeira that same year allowed the band to grow more comfortable, not only through being able to achieve a specific aesthetic, but in working together to explore old numbers they felt new fans would enjoy.
A requited musical kinship bloomed, making way for an intriguing foundation to build new songs upon. The lead single, “Demons,” with its smokey, layered voices and additional arrangements by Sufjan Stevens, works as a stern and menacing injection that uses an odd meter to balance subtle horns with jarring strings. As a lead, it indicated the album’s mood in coinciding with the tickled misery of what came before it, not a stone’s throw away from the group’s established stylistic angle. It also affirmed that level of experimentation with peculiar melodies and time signatures, which were overcome by subtracting the constraints of meter and devoting each musician’s energy to feeling their way around the sounds that materialized. However, on the follow-up single, “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” a familiar percussion pace akin to “Apartment Story” is deployed alongside startling piano keys and guest vocals from St Vincent. It makes for an incredible piece and one of the undeniable standout tracks on here. It’s everything you might expect from The National; brooding and tormented vocals with a beautiful accompaniment and a catchy chorus — “I’m not alone/ I’ll never be/ Into the bone/ I’ll never grieve” — but one that comes with an unfortunate consequence: the track is so enchanting that it emphasizes the blander, less memorable sections that follow it.
With its whirlwind drum beat and melodic bass line, “Graceless” initially sounds like a contender for another quick-paced half-way number à la “Friend of Mine” or “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” but it lacks any of the emotive qualities that made those songs so radiant and exciting. With a tired buildup, it climaxes in one of Berninger’s most questionable lines yet — “There’s a science to walking through windows without you” — which feels so second rate from a band that has previously been able to balance its indie rock leanings with mainstream success to an unparalleled standard. There is also nothing particularly prominent or daring about “Humiliation,” which is exceptionally droll. It’s a five-minute bruiser that clutters the space around it and tampers with the album’s pace, which is somewhat regrettable when taking into account how spectacular the remaining tracks are.
“Slipped” best represents the album’s elegant highs, and it’s quite possibly one of the greatest songs The National have recorded to date. With its mixed half-bars and coded lyrics, it embodies everything that gained the band early adoration from fans who could feel something special about the unusual manner in which they tackled their country-flecked alt rock. That vibe remains central to the bulk of Trouble Will Find Me, and my gripes with a track like “Graceless” far from overshadow the brilliant gloom felt in “Sea of Love” or the haunted, bare-bones finesse of “Hard To Find Me.” Whether he is singing about Jo, Jenny, or Davy, Berninger maintains a forlorn air within the confident musical direction his colleagues are working in. They have laid down some astounding tracks here, but as a whole, the album is not on par with any full-length the band have released since Alligator. In the case of other outfits operating in a similar domain, releasing a record that doesn’t live up to the last few LPs might be seen as a squandered opportunity, but when taking The National’s back catalog into account, it doesn’t seem like such a tough break — just some visceral retort to a spell of belted optimism.